What is a theory of intelligent design?

 ( Is theistic evolution a design theory? ) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.



     When scientists study a feature of nature (a star, bacteria, whale, biochemical system,...) they can ask about its origin.  Was it produced by design, either by
      natural process because, before history began, the universe was cleverly designed so this would happen, and/or
      natural process that, during history, was guided in a natural-appearing way that is not scientifically detectable, or
      detectable design-directed action during history, by a natural agent or supernatural agent, which was necessary because undirected natural process would not produce the feature?   ( this third possibility seems to be the most common meaning for a theory of "intelligent design" )
      Or was there no design of any type?

      In this page, these four types of design are examined, and then relationships between design and creation are explored by asking Why is it controversial?

four types of design

      If you receive a radio signal — 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17,... — and you think "this long string of prime numbers probably was not produced by undirected natural process," you are proposing a theory of Intelligent Design.

      To explain the origin of a feature (an object, organism, system, situation,...) the only two possibilities are non-Design and Design:
      N. non-Design, with undirected natural process producing the feature (*);
      D. Design (and production) by an agent using Design-directed action that converts a Design-idea into the reality of a designed feature;  more specifically, origin by Design-action can be due to
      Ds) Design (and creation) by a supernatural agent (God,...) using Design-directed action, or
      Dn) Design (and construction) by a natural agent (a human,...) using Design-directed action.

      * Production of a feature by what appears to be undirected natural process (by what is commonly called non-Design) could be due to:
      Ni) design-directed action occurring at the beginning of history in a design of nature (Why do we have sunshine?) and converting this design-idea into reality (at the initial instant of time) which eventually results in production of a feature by undirected natural process, and/or (*)
      Ns) a gentle guiding of natural process by a supernatural agent, in design-directed "guiding" action that occurs during history but is not empirically detectable because the gentle guiding-action blends smoothly with the usual workings of nature so it appears normal and natural, or
      Nu) a natural process that actually is undesigned, unguided, and undirected.
      Therefore, of the five possibilities — Natural-initial design (Ni), Natural-supernatural design (Ns), Detectable-supernatural Design (Ds), Detectable-natural Design (Dn), and Natural-undesigned (Nu) — four are design and only one (Nu) is non-design.

* The "Ni... and/or Ns" above leads to speculations about other combinations:  Does "Ni without Ns" or "Ns without Ni" actually occur? and if either does occur, how should it be categorized?  These theological questions won't be discussed in this page, but I'll assume the answers are "yes" and "no" so we can have "only Ni" or "Ni followed by Ns". }

      When you're reading the rest of this section, you may begin wondering "why is he making it so complicated by distinguishing between four types of design, and between Design (specific with a narrow definition) and design (general with a broad definition)?"  My answer is that these distinctions are important and are necessary, because without them our thinking can be illogical and our communicating can be confused.  Einstein said "we should make things as simple as possible, but no simpler," and making it "as simple as possible" requires these distinctions.  If you read carefully while thinking, you'll see that this system of terms (with four types of design, which include two types of Design) is necessary and it does make sense;  this system will be useful because it will improve our thinking and communicating, helping us think more logically and communicate more clearly.   /   Or you can skip ahead to Part 2, to see Why it's controversial — Is it creationism?

      Design (specific, narrowly defined) and design (general, broadly defined)
For improved precision, I'll use words that are Capitalized and regular to distinguish between Intelligent Design (defined narrowly) and intelligent design (defined broadly).
      In this page, and in most other contexts, a Design theory is a claim that a feature was produced by empirically detectable Design-directed action during history (by Dn-or-Ds, with Design-action by a natural agent or supernatural agent) rather than Ni (design of nature, which is not during history), Ns (supernatural design-directed guidance of natural process, which is not empirically detectable), or Nu (which is not by design-directed action).
      My definition of design is broader; it includes Ds-or-Dn (Design) and also Ni and Ns (which are not Design but are design), so design includes everything except Nu.

      The table below shows the four types of design (in the three columns with a white YES) and the three questions that are used to define design (Does the production of a feature involve design-directed action?) and Design (Does the Design-action occur during history and, in principle, could it be empirically detectable?).

Ds. Design-action by supernatural agent 
Dn. Design-action by natural agent     

Ni. natural process is initially designed 
Ns. natural process with
       supernatural guiding-action

Nu. natural process that is undesigned   
and (in history) is unguided & undirected 

design and Design
defined in terms of
three questions
 Ds or Dn 
 design-directed action? 
occurs during history?
 empirically detectable? 

      testing for Design and design:  Using my definitions, a feature was produced by either Design (Ds-or-Dn, by detectable "design-directed action" which is "B") or non-Design (Ni, Ns, or Nu, by undetectable "undirected natural process" which is "A"), so Design and non-Design are mutually exclusive, and evidence for one is evidence against the other.  By logically using this mutually exclusive relationship, can Design be scientifically detected?   /   But design includes Design and more, so evidence against Design (during history and detectable, Ds-or-Dn) is not evidence against the other two types of design, by design before history (Ni) or by undetectable design-action (Ns).   Why is there a "?" in one of the cells? (three explanations for a "just right" universe)

      Thus, when testing for design a false negative is possible, if we conclude "there is insufficient evidence for Design (Ds-or-Dn)" but in reality there is design (Ni and/or Ns).
      We can also reach wrong conclusions about Design (Ds-or-Dn) with either false negatives or false positives, because there is a continuum between undetectable & detectable, and scientists differ in their evaluations of currently available evidence, and because our estimates for "detectable" Design can change with improved research (with new observations and/or analysis) that produces changes in scientific knowledge.

      Because design includes Design and more, my definition of undirected (= undetectable in principle) is based on what we "know" (epistemology) rather than what actually exists (ontology).  And my criterion for distinguishing between directed and guided is detectability, so an undirected natural process — which (as in Ni, Ns, or Nu) is not directed in a detectable way — might be supernaturally guided in an undetectable way.
      My definition also limits guiding-action to a supernatural agent, even though the Design-action of a natural agent might not be detectable (as in the case of a skillful criminal, stage magician, or special effects moviemaker), and a supernatural guiding-action might be detectable if it produces a highly improbable sequence of events (like 20 consecutive wins in roulette) even if each individual event appears to be "undirected natural process" that is undetectable.  Although I define events as being either detectable or undetectable, we should realize that in reality the actual degree of detectability can vary along a continuum.
      another definition:  In science, random means only "we cannot predict the result."  This definition is epistemological, consistent with the fact that science does not say anything, yes or no, about whether God can predict or control random events.
      a clarification:  To avoid a possible misconception, we should recognize that undirected natural process, with no agent-action, is not necessarily random with no direction.  For example, the path of a baseball is not random;  this is why it can be chased and caught by an outfielder.  And in biology, natural selection that is undirected (by human agents) can lead to directional change in a population, causing it to change in ways that are beneficial for the survival and reproduction of its members.  When this occurs in different situations during the history of life on earth, it can produce convergent evolution in different species, which tends to move populations in directions that Daniel Dennett calls "good tricks" for survival and reproduction.
      When we think about the limitations of definitions, as outlined in the paragraphs above, our efforts to "categorize and define" can be conceptually useful by stimulating our analytical thinking about similarities and differences.

      The table below describes 4 possible examples of design:  2 are labeled "if..." because we cannot know if God exists and if natural-appearing events are guided always or sometimes or never;  and 1 is labeled "if..." because we don't know if life originated by undirected natural process (unguided or guided) or natural design-directed action (as in directed panspermia) or supernatural design-directed action that might appear miraculous.  Notice the "appearing" (which describes what we observe-and-infer) in natural-appearing and miraculous-appearing;  theists believe that both involve a supernatural God, if God is involved in creating-and-sustaining natural process, and maybe guiding natural process.

 4 possible examples of design  (a label of 
 "if" acknowledges that "we don't know if...")
 epistemology:  in principle,  
 can we detect the design? 
 natural-appearing unguided mutation (if...) - Ni  no - undetectable (undirected) 
 natural-appearing guided mutation (if...) - Ns  no - undetectable (undirected)
 natural-appearing (e.g. building a house) - Dn  yes - detectable (directed)
 miraculous-appearing origin of life (if...) - Ds  maybe - detectable (directed)

Using the definitions-and-abbreviations above, for the origin of a particular feature, "supernatural design-action during history" is "s" (as in Ns or Ds) and "no supernatural design-action during history" is "not s" as in Nu or Dn.  In an atheistic worldview, Nu (nature that is initially undesigned, and then is unguided & undirected) is necessary for maintaining the worldwiew, while Ni, Ns and Ds are impossible.  A deistic worldview proposes Ni with God designing nature (so Nu is impossible) but not being active in history (so Ns and Ds are impossible).  A theistic worldview proposes Ni (thus rejecting Nu) and also proposes Ns and maybe Ds;  in a Judeo-Christian worldview, based on the Bible, only Nu is impossible.   { You can see these options, for each worldview, clarified in a table. }
      Notice that, contrary to unfortunately common stereotypes, Design does not mean "involving the supernatural" (because although Ds has this combination, Dn doesn't), and non-Design does not mean "not involving the supernatural" (although Nu has this combination, Ni and Ns don't);  this is shown by the "mixing" that occurs in Dn (with Design by a natural agent) and in Ni or Ns (since each is non-Design that involves design by a supernatural agent).

What is Intelligent Design?
      Usually, an Intelligent Design Theory is defined as a claim about detectable Design-action during history, a claim that "Ds-or-Dn has occurred."  But Ni also requires design that is extremely intelligent, and all theists claim this has occurred.  Ns is also believed by all theists and is very important theologically and practically (as in our daily prayers) but it's undetectable so its scientific importance is minimal.  For example, an FAQ for the pro-Design Access Research Network claims that "conventional theistic evolution is incompatible with Intelligent Design, since it... denies that God's creative activity can be empirically detected."  But this definition is too narrow for a generalized "intelligent design" because theistic evolution does propose intelligent design in Ni and also perhaps Ns.

note:  This system of terms — distinguishing between Design (specific) and design (general) — is my own system.  Other authors have not used it in the past, and probably most will not use it in the future, although I hope the ideas in it will be considered and accepted.  The rest of this page will use the system's two terms consistently, although in other pages "design" could refer to either Design or design, and (as with other authors) you'll have to think about the context and decide the intended meaning.

Why is it controversial?  (Intelligent Design and creationism)
      Theories of Design can be evaluated using the logical methods of science, and are common in science.  Most Design theories are judged on their scientific merit, but some people claim that some Design theories are "not scientific" and should therefore be excluded from science.  Why?
      Concerns about Design occur when Design-action seems unfamiliar.  In some situations (Dn) the action and agent are familiar (as when a beaver builds a dam, or humans make faces on Mount Rushmore) but in other cases the Design-action is unfamiliar and it could be either natural (for example, if space aliens produced Designed features by using their unfamiliar advanced technologies) or supernatural (as in Biblical miracles).  For most opponents of Design, questions occur when Design-action is unfamiliar and it could be supernatural.  In these situations (possibly Ds rather than Dn) the main concerns are religious — although critics also have questions about whether design can be detected using scientific methods — and a common claim is that a Design theory is a creation theory.  Is this claim justified?
      For any question about Design, in any area (radioastronomy, homicide, origins,...), we can view the scientific inquiry as a two-stage process:  first we ask "Was there Design-directed action?", and then we investigate the details.  A basic Design theory claims only that Design-directed action did occur (the first stage) but does not try to explain the details (who, why, how,...) of Design-and-production.  Of course, we should evaluate a Design theory based on what it does claim (that Design occurred) instead of what it does not claim (that it can explain the details).
      In origins, a Design theory is not a creation theory.  A basic Design theory can be supplemented with details (about the Designer's identity and actions, about who, why, how,...) to form a variety of theories about supernatural creation (by God or...) or natural non-creation (as in a theory proposing that evolution on earth was Intelligently Designed and directed by space aliens who evolved before us).  A Design theory — which does not propose divine action, but does acknowledge it as a possibility — does not try to distinguish between creation and non-creation.  Instead, a Design theory just claims that "Design-directed action did occur."
      A basic (non-supplemented) Design theory is limited to claims that can be scientifically evaluated.  In a Response to Critics, Michael Behe explains: "Most people (including myself) will attribute the design to God, based in part on other, non-scientific judgments they have made. ... From a scientific point of view, the question [who is the designer?] remains open. ... The biochemical evidence strongly indicates design, but does not show who the designer was."  As a person, Behe says "I think the designer was God."  But as a scientist, he says "the evidence for design doesn't show who the designer was."

      analogy and consistency (in Design and non-Design)
      analogy:  We can view a naturalistic theory of non-Design (such as chemical evolution or neo-Darwinian biological evolution) as being mainly religious — because it supports deism or theism (if a clever design of nature seems to be necessary for it to happen) or atheism (if it seems to make God unnecessary) — or as mainly scientific even though it may have some religious implications.  Similarly, we can view a Design theory as being mainly religious or mainly scientific.  In open-minded science, a scientist uses evidence and logic to evaluate "mere science" theories (such as mere evolution or mere Design) that are considered, during a process of objective evaluation, to be mainly scientific with minimal religious implications.
      consistency:  Supporters of non-Design and Design should ask themselves, "Are we being objective and logically consistent when we're describing our theory and their theory?  Or are we trying to make ourselves look more scientifically rational by claiming that our own theory is mainly scientific, and their theory is mainly religious?"

      Although objectivity is a noble goal in science, controversial claims for "Design-directed action during history" are often evaluated, either intentionally or unconsciously, using a complex blending of criteria that are both scientific and theological.  {theology is one aspect of the cultural-personal factors that influence science}
      For an atheist, only one conclusion — a totally naturalistic history — is theologically acceptable, so any claim that might imply divine Design-action must be rejected.   { possibilities for design in five worldviews }
      But for a Judeo-Christian theist who believes the actions of God are not limited to a sustaining and guiding of natural process, who believes that God can also do miracles, claims for divine Design-action should be theologically acceptable.  All theists should believe that God intelligently designed the universe.  But in my opinion there isn't any compelling theological reason to believe that God did (or didn't) design the universe to be totally self-assembling by natural process, and this is the question being asked in the most hotly disputed claims for Intelligent Design.
      As explained in Theology of Theistic Evolution,
      Instead of criticizing either view as being "less worthy" it seems wise to adopt a humble attitude... and decide that God's plan for design-and-creation was wonderful and is worthy of our praise, whether he did it with two modes of action [both natural and miraculous] or just one.  When science helps us discover any aspect of God's clever design for self-assembly in nature... we should praise God.  We should also praise God for miracles, in salvation history or formative history.  Whether a feature of the universe (stars or stardust, first life or complex life) was created by natural process and/or by miracle, we can praise God for his intelligence, power, and wisdom, for what he created and how he created it.
      A proponent of old-earth creation (or young-earth creation) should be willing to praise God for designing a universe that was totally self-assembling by natural process, with no formative miracles, in case this is how He did it.  Similarly, a proponent of evolutionary creation should be willing to praise God for using both modes of creative action, for cleverly designing nature to produce most phenomena without miracles, and for powerfully doing miracles when natural process was not sufficient, since this might be the way He did it.
      We should be appropriately humble about God's methods of creation.  You and I should say in public — and believe in private, in our hearts and minds — that "IF God created using another method (differing from the way I think He created), then God is worthy of our praise."  But this if-then humility is compatible with also explaining why we think a particular view is most likely to be true.  We can be humble while we explain — using arguments based on theology and science, based on our interpretations of scripture and nature — why we think one view is more plausible than other views.




Is a common definition of design too narrow?  Is theistic evolution a design theory?
      In Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, Loren Haarsma & Terry Gray say,
      In recent years, some people [such as Phillip Johnson and William Dembski] have appropriated the name 'Intelligent Design' for a particular theory — the theory that biological evolution is limited to making small changes so that biological complexity could only have been produced if God (or someone) superseded evolution during biological history. ... Whatever might be said, good or bad, about the scientific and theological arguments of Intelligent Design theory, we are troubled by the appropriation of the word 'design' to exclude evolution.  Intelligent Design theory, the way it is typically presented, seems to offer the following choice: either modern life forms evolved or they were designed.  That is a false choice.  Christian theology says that modern life forms were definitely designed by God, whether God used ordinary evolution or superseded it." {source}

my comment:  Haarsma & Gray are pointing out a logical disadvantage of not making a distinction between Design and design because without this distinction it's easier to imply that "if it isn't Design then it isn't design."

Worldviews and Design
This table shows the types of design that are required (YES) or rejected ( - ) in five worldviews — atheism, deism, minimal theism, and Bible-based evolutionary creation (EC) or progressive creation (PC) — with a distinction for Ds-Design between miracles in the salvation history of humans and the formative history of nature:

(nature not designed) Nu
 (nature was designed) Ni
(natural guidance) Ns
(salvation miracles) Ds
 (formative ID-miracles) Ds
 (ID-action by people,...) Dn

As explained earlier and shown in the "biblical EC" and "biblical PC" columns above, "in my opinion there isn't any compelling theological reason to believe that God did (or didn't) design the universe to be totally self-assembling by natural process."

Two Perspectives on Design: Logical and Sociological
      In the logical analysis above, I ask "Why is it controversial?" and explain why Intelligent Design is not creationism.   /   Later, I'll write a sociological analysis of relationships between Design and nonDesign in communities of scientists and in American society, including connections between Intelligent Design and young-earth creationism, especially in education.  In an early summary of this sociological analysis, I conclude that connections between Intelligent Design and young-earth creationism should be considered (but should not be determinative) in education, but are mostly irrelevant in science.

Design theories can be scientifically tested, and are common in science
      When we use the definitions (of Design and design) above, Design and non-Design are mutually exclusive (it was one or the other) so we can use eliminative logic: if non-Design is highly improbable, then Design is highly probable.  Thus, evidence against non-Design (against production of a feature by undirected natural process) is evidence for Design.  And vice versa.  The evaluative status of non-Design (and thus Design) can be decreased or increased by observable empirical evidence, so a theory of Design is empirically responsive and is testable.  Based on a logical evaluation of evidence, we can conclude that a Design theory is probably true (if all non-Design theories seem highly implausible) or is probably false (if any non-Design theory seems highly plausible).
      In science, theories of Design are common.  Scientists propose Design-action to explain a wide variety of features such as bird nests, ant hills, predator-prey events, paintings on a cave wall, metal satellites in orbit, and faces on Mount Rushmore.  In many areas — for example, when a crime detective concludes that "this death occurred by murder, not natural causes" — a logical inference that "Design-directed action did occur" can be scientifically justified. *

Can we observe a guiding of natural process?  (no and yes)
      For various reasons, sometimes an agent wants Design-action to be undetectable, as with the Design-directed action of an illusionist (entertainment magician) who "directs" things in a way that is difficult to detect, or a criminal, plastic surgeon, or the special effects of a movie-maker, or when God "guides" natural process.  Why isn't God more obvious?
      In my definitions:  A directing of natural process can be detected, in principle and usually in practice, IF the observational data is adequate — for example, slow motion videos (shot from many angles) of a stage magician, plus careful examination of all equipment — and our logic is skillful.  Because I define "natural" as "normal appearing," by definition the guiding of a natural-appearing event cannot be detected.  But...
      Sometimes a series of undetectable events can become detectable, as in a series of 20 roulette wins, even though each spin is natural-appearing.   { When should a series begin to cause suspicion about guiding or direction?  after 1 crucial high-stakes win for choosing "a number" instead of just "red or black"? or after 2 straight number-wins?  after 5 straight "red or black" wins? 10? 20? or 19 of 20 wins?  or after 10 of 20 "number" wins? }
      These questions, about the detectability (in principle and in practice) of events that are guided or directed, are examined more closely in Old Earth Creation - Progressive Creation and Evolutionary Creation which asks "Can we detect natural-appearing divine guidance?" and answers "Maybe."

Can Design be scientifically detected, and should theories of Design be allowed in science?   * And even though Design is common in science and "the main concerns [about unfamiliar Design-action] are religious," are there also logical reasons for caution when we ask "what are the goals of science, and what methods should be used to pursue these goals"?   These questions are examined in a page that asks, Can a theory proposing "Design" be scientific? and explains why "this type of doubt [about "no and yes"] is one reason that scientists cannot prove Design or non-Design... even though they can develop a logically justified confidence in the truth or falsity of a Design theory."

Sunshine and Balance
      Sunshine warms our bodies, grows our food, and lets us see.  But why do we have sunshine?  It occurs because natural processes — which depend on the mass of particles, conversion of mass to energy (e = mc2), rate of nuclear reactions, and relative sizes of nuclear and gravitational forces — produce a balance between opposing forces.  The cosmic tug-of-war inside our sun has lasted billions of years, with some forces constantly pulling the sun's fiery atmosphere inward, while other forces are pushing it outward.  When we learn that natural process is "just right" for producing sunshine, instead of feeling sad (as if sunshine occurs "without God" because it is natural) Christians should rejoice and praise God for the wonderful way He created nature!

Three Explanations for a Just-Right Universe
      An amazing discovery of scientists, in recent decades, is that many properties of the universe are "just right" for life.  To understand why scientists think the universe is fine-tuned to allow life, imagine that you are sitting in front of a control panel with dozens of dials.  To allow life, each dial — which controls one property of the universe — must be tuned to a specific setting within a very narrow range.  You are alive, reading this web-page, because all dials are properly tuned, and this produces a wide variety of life-permitting natural phenomena that include stable atoms and molecules, the formation of stars which produce the energy and atoms needed for life, the amazing chemistry of DNA and water and enzymes, and much more.
      Most scientists are convinced that the constraints on a life-allowing universe are very tight, that small changes would make the existence of intelligent life impossible.  Based on scientific evidence, there is little doubt about this conclusion.  There are, however, two main theories claiming to explain why our universe is what it is:
      intelligent design plus design-directed action, with our universe being designed and produced by an extremely intelligent and powerful designer/producer who cleverly designed the universe so it would support life. 
      multiverse theory proposes a way to beat the odds against a universe that is life-allowing, and perhaps also life-producing. ... If there is an immense number of universes (in a multiverse), with properties randomly distributed, many things that can happen (even if they're extremely improbable) will happen somewhere in the multiverse, so this theory decreases the logical support for design, whether this evidence occurs at the level of the universe, origin of life, or development of life.
      intelligent design of a multiverse might be the way God designed our universe, so instead of EITHER-OR it might be design-AND-multiverse.
      Or should we just say "So what?" because if we are observing a universe, it obviously must have properties that allow our existence?  This anthropic principle — which states that because humans exist, we will observe a universe consistent with our existenceis logically valid, and is compatible with either the presence or absence of a designer, so it doesn't favor either theory.

For more about this idea, Anthropic Principle & Fine Tuning: Multiverse and/or Intelligent Design?



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